Survivors: Engrossing storytelling

We have been here before

A 1970s drama played on a nagging sense that modern life was fragile

On Television

Somewhere in a Chinese laboratory a masked, white-suited scientist picks up a glass flask of pale liquid. It slips from his gloved hand, shattering on the workbench. The camera cuts to an airport, tinny announcements sounding in the distance. A plane takes off, a man of Asian appearance frowns and touches his head. A second later, he stumbles and falls to the ground. We see an outstretched hand, its fingers still. A flurry of passport stamps follow: Berlin, Singapore, New York and many more. The pandemic has been unleashed.

These could be the opening scenes of a contemporary drama about Covid-19 as it ravages the planet. In fact they are the starting sequence of Survivors, a BBC drama broadcast in the mid-1970s. I was a teenager then and well remember the delicious frisson of terror each week as the sweeping theme music heralded a new episode.

Survivors was created by the late Terry Nation, the man who conjured up the Daleks, the robot killers inspired by the Nazis. The Daleks’ war-cry was “exterminate, exterminate,” and while they failed, Terry Nation’s fictional pathogen did just that. There is no cure for the virus, perhaps one in 5,000 people survive. Civilisation as we know it has ended for ever. Cities reek from the stench of dead bodies. Typhoid surges. Looters and gangs roam the countryside. Survivors forage for food and shelter. Money is worthless.

Survivors was not only decades ahead of its time, but the first series at least was one of the BBC’s finest dramas. It ran for three seasons, all of which are available on DVD. A new version ran from 2008 to 2010. Even in the age of Netflix the 1970s Survivors still makes engrossing viewing. The pandemic itself is quite swiftly dealt with. The horror mostly takes place offscreen. The storylines engage, the characters are nuanced: a power-mad trades union leader who has formed his own militia, a well-meaning farmer trying to set up a proto-kibbutz. Abby, once a spoilt middle-class housewife, is ruthless and determined as she searches for her son Peter, but never loses her humanity.

The veneer of civilisation is thinner than we realised

All of them, like real-life survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides, must desensitise themselves to the death all around them, including that of their own families. Occasionally the camera lingers on black and white photographs, framed, or perhaps pinned to a kitchen shelf to remind us of the lives that have been lost. There are tears and betrayal, but also courage, comradeship and loyalty.

Survivors has endured because the programme is much more than engrossing storytelling. Its themes touch on our secret, hidden fears — not just of dying of some hideous disease, or watching those we love struck down, but the nagging worry that twenty-first-century civilisation is built on shaky foundations. We all fear the end of days, the portent of which runs through all the Abrahamic religions. The better it gets, the more we have to lose.

Certainly by the 1970s, when Survivors was first shown, life for many was steadily improving. Memories of the war and postwar deprivation and rationing were fading. Supermarkets supplied affordable, nutritious food. Television and radio brought news and entertainment at the touch of a button. Aeroplanes, cars, railways connected people and countries. Travel agents offered package holidays abroad. Housing was affordable. A new era had dawned of unparalleled creature comforts, like central heating. In the opening scene of episode one, Abby, played by Caroline Seymour, is playing tennis with a machine, while the help serves her cold drinks.

Nowadays, the nagging sense that modern life is fragile and unnatural endures. Before lockdown, I saw posters advertising app delivery services for Kentucky Fried Chicken. People too lazy even to fetch their own fast-food, let alone actually cook a meal, could now have a low-paid worker deliver it. How long could this indolence last under stress? Not very, it turned out. The takeaways are closed or empty. Wild boar roam the streets of Barcelona, jackals prowl Tel Aviv’s main park. The veneer of civilisation is thinner than we realised.

Many trace the origin of Covid-19 to China’s notorious “wet markets” where animals are butchered on demand. One theory posits bats as the source, another pangolins, considered a delicacy in China and so critically endangered. If true, the scaly mammals are wreaking a biblical revenge. But a third theory, gaining traction, is that the virus leaked from a laboratory or institute in Wuhan. We may never know, but the theory is “no longer being discounted”, according to senior British government sources, reported the Daily Mail.

China, of course, angrily denies these claims. Its diplomats write indignant letters to newspapers, lauding “China’s significant contribution to global public health and safety”. Except in the slippery alleys of Wuhan’s wet market, and perhaps in the city’s laboratories. One day, when we have come through Covid-19, all this too will be dramatised.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover